Today's Reading

(The copy in this email is used by permission, from an uncorrected advanced proof. In quoting from this book for reviews or any other purpose, it is essential that the final printed book be referred to, since the author may make changes on these proofs before the book goes to press. This book will be available in bookstores February 2020.)


In later years Gwendolyn would look back to the moment she fell in love with the Earl of Westenbury, and smile.

"He was the handsomest man I'd ever seen," she would say. "When he walked into Almack's that evening, I was dancing with someone else and nearly stopped dead in my tracks. But I did see that he was looking at me too, and my heart seemed to lift, and soar—oh, like a bird in flight!

"After the dance was over, my partner—whose name I could barely remember, I was so giddy—he took me back to my relation the Duchess of Egremont. Standing next to her, it took all my self-restraint not to stare around the room, to search with my eyes for the handsome stranger. She was talking about horses, I think, but I couldn't tell you for sure. My mind was, well, elsewhere.

"And then Mrs. Drummond-Burrell—the haughtiest, most minutely correct of the Patronesses—came walking—no, gliding toward the Duchess and me, with him at her side, as if by magic, it seemed to me. A wish made manifest with all the incredible dreamlike logic of a fairy tale.

"He smiled, and I felt so joyful it was as if a thousand lanterns within me were lighting all at once. And I smiled back.

"'Your Grace,' Mrs. Drummond-Burrell said to the Duchess, in that cool measured way of hers, 'here is, as you see, the Earl of Westenbury. He has just yesterday arrived in Town, and wishes me to present himself to you as a desirable partner for Miss Penhallow.'

"The Earl bowed, and oh, he was even more handsome at close range! He was wearing the dark knee-breeches considered de rigueur for Almack's back then, with a dark long-tailed coat and a beautiful snow-white cravat tied just so. And I could see that his eyes were a lovely deep green, flecked with gold, and that his hair was a tawny light-brown, cropped à la Brutus—also very fashionable at the time—and his shoulders were wonderfully broad, and—well, it was all a dazzling jumble of impressions and I'm not sure I was even breathing!—and then he was saying 'How do you do, Miss Penhallow' in that marvelous deep voice of his, and that was that.

"Love at first sight.

"Inexplicable, indefinable, practically indescribable. "Yet there it was.

"It nearly hurt me physically to tell him that all my dances were taken, but, feeling myself very clever, I added, as casually as I could, that the next evening I was to attend Lord and Lady Mainwaring's ball.

"Imagine my happiness when the Earl immediately said that he was going as well, and might he secure two of my dances. I would have given him all'my dances, but he could only ask for two, you see, because any more would have been considered dreadfully risqué. And then I had to wait twenty-three hours—yes, I counted them, I really did!—until I could see him again. And he danced so beautifully. He didn't step on the hem of my gown, or try to squeeze my hands in a vulgar way or bring me too close during a waltz as some other gentlemen tried to do and which made me absolutely furious."

Here Gwendolyn would pause, and into her eyes would come a look of warm nostalgia.

"The Mainwarings' ball took place two weeks after I arrived in London for the Season. After that, the Earl and I met at other gatherings, at assemblies and art galleries, at Vauxhall Gardens and Venetian breakfasts—every day, sometimes more than once!—and he would smile at me, and I'd fall in love with him all over again.

"And then suddenly the Earl disappeared. He was seen heading north in his curricle and four, traveling fast. I hardly knew what to think. He left no message for me. Where had he gone, would he come back, had he left me forever? I was beside myself with anxiety.

"Then, after what felt like the longest fortnight of my life, Hugo, my dear older brother Hugo, arrived! The Earl had traveled to Whitehaven, and formally requested from Hugo—he was my guardian, you know—my hand in marriage.

"'Is this what you want, Gwennie?' Hugo asked me.

"'Oh yes, oh yes,' I answered firmly. Rapturously. The Earl, I'd come to learn after our first meeting, had been for well over ten years one of the ton's most eligible gentlemen, but hadn't found anyone he liked well enough to even consider marrying. And now he wanted me—as much as I wanted him! I didn't know whether to dance around the room like a zany, or collapse in a chair to try and take it all in.

"You're sure?' Hugo said.

"Yes, I am.'

"It's all happened rather quickly,' he observed.

"Yes,' I said. 'But Hugo, sometimes one just knows.'

"And of course Hugo had to agree with me, having been so fortunate in his own marriage. To have found his own true love."

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